WILL Blog | Responding to School Choice Critics

 In Education Reform, ER Commentary

Carol Lenz and Jim Bowmen’s recent op-ed, “Choice Helps Few Public School Students,” ignores a number of important details about school choice in the state of Wisconsin.  Only when proper context is given can readers make informed decisions on the value of this policy and the state of education in the Badger State.

Lenz and Bowman begin by criticizing all taxpayer spending on school vouchers – the government-funded program that allows eligible children to attend a private school of their choosing.  But, let’s keep things in perspective.  While taxpayers have spent $2.2 billion on vouchers in Milwaukee since it 1990; over that same time, they have spent $200 billion on K-12 public schools. For those keeping score at home, that’s about 1% of the amount spent on public schools in the state.  Our K-12 public schools are well-funded; ranking in the top half of states according to the most recent information available from the Census Bureau. That ranking is only likely to increase due to Governor Walker’s large increase in K12 spending included in the state’s 2017-19 biennial budget.

Nonetheless, Lenz and Bowman argue that a student leaving the local public school does not free up the same amount of funds that a whole classroom of students leaving would.  However, the exact same argument could be applied to a child whose family moves out of the school district or utilizes the Open Enrollment Program, which permits a child to attend a public school outside of their district.  But we do not hear the authors complaining about the reduction in aid that occurs in those circumstances (which indeed happens more frequently than the utilization of a voucher).  Why school choice should be an exception to this is unclear.

The authors go on to criticize school choice as benefiting those already in private schools.  While 68% of students in the statewide Wisconsin Parental Choice Program (WPCP) were in private schools before the advent of the program, this percentage has been declining as more parents in public schools are becoming aware of the program.  Regardless, the authors ignore the reality that those families with a voucher still only earn up to 185% of the federal poverty line.  It is unlikely that these cash-strapped families were paying full tuition in most instances, and were probably receiving scholarships from the school. The introduction of the WPCP may open opportunities for even more students by freeing up scholarships previously used by voucher students to additional students.

Lastly, the authors criticize a study of mine at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.  Titled Apples to Apples, our study is the most comprehensive comparison of schools in Milwaukee that has been conducted in recent years; while controlling for socio-economic factors, we found that students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) outperform their peers in Milwaukee Public Schools.

Lenz and Bowman criticize me for not using disability data from the Department of Public Instruction for students in the MPCP.  But DPI’s data is severely flawed because private schools have not, in the past, received additional revenue for teaching disabled students. Therefore, there is no incentive for the schools to diagnose students. This question was examined extensively by Dr. Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas as part of the School Choice Demonstration Project.   Wolf writes that the DPI-reported disability numbers are “clearly both an invalid and unreliable measure of the true disability rate in MPCP.”  As a result, the inclusion of DPI data on disability, in our research, would substantially bias the results.

If the authors remain unconvinced by our study, there are a number of other academic studies in Milwaukee that show the benefits of school choice; including substantially higher graduation rates and a reduction in the likelihood choice students will become involved in criminal activity. At the national level, 14 out of 18 studies conducted with the highest level of experimental rigor find a positive effect on academic achievement. Two studies find no effect, and only two such studies—the Louisiana studies cherry-picked in the editorial—find negative outcomes.   These overwhelmingly positive findings should not be ignored.

By presenting half-truths and statistics without the necessary nuance, the authors seek to convince readers the voucher programs – used by more than 32,000 families throughout Wisconsin – are a failure.  They are wrong.  Unlike Lenz and Bowman, parents in Wisconsin are gradually realizing that they – and not Madison bureaucrats – are best able to make decisions for their children’s education.

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